Sat Oct 27th, 2007 at 11:15:41 AM EST
This is not my diary, it's JohnnyRook's. In the act of front-paging it, I brilliantly succeeded in hitting "Delete". I have managed to retrieve the text, but I have dang well lost the comments (bang bang bullet in head). My apologies to JohnnyRook and the commenters.
As Michael Pollan points out in his fine book The Omnivore's Dilemma A Natural History of Four Meals not many people know who Fritz Haber was. That is probably because of the German chemist's prominent role in designing armaments for the Kaiser's army in World War I. Haber's invention of synthetic nitrate allowed the German munitions industry to continue to turn out bombs even after the allies had cut off their access to natural Chilean nitrate. Haber then went on to develop chlorine and other poisonous gases for the German army. On April 25, 1915 he personally oversaw the first use of poison gases on the battlefield.
Crossposted on DailyKos
Fritz Haber was awarded the 1918 Nobel prize for chemistry for his work on the fixation of nitrogen from the air, which made possible the synthesis of ammonia from it's component elements, hydrogen and nitrogen. The discovery that had kept German bombs rolling off the assembly line also made possible the creation of artificial fertilizers. It is artificial fertilizer not bomb making that is the most enduringly significant aspect of Haber's work. The consequences were enormous, making possible the 20th century's Green Revolution in agriculture without which the ensuing population explosion could not have happened. Human engineered nitrogen fixation removed the limit on human population that dependence on natural nitrogen fixation had imposed. According to Vaclav Smil, the author of a study of the Haber-Bosch process (Carl Bosch commercialized Haber's invention), without nitrogen fertilizers the planet's population could be no more than half of what it is today.
From our early 21st century vantage point where overpopulation and its concomitant bevy of environmental problems are clearly visible we may be forgiven for having second thoughts about the benefits of Fritz Haber's history-altering invention.
The story doesn't end here though. After the end of the Second World War the United States government was faced with the question of what to do with it's now-surplus munitions production capability. If you didn't need synthetic ammonia for bombs, what else could you do with it? After some debate, it was decided to put it to work on the country's farms. (Pollan page 41) This decision changed farming radically.
On the American farm ammonium nitrate met it's soul mate: corn. Corn grew so successfully with synthetic nitrogen fertilizer that most farmers abandoned other crops and crop rotation to grow only corn. But, what do you do with all that corn? Lots of things. According to Pollan, (page 19) out of the roughly 45,000 items in an American supermarket one fourth of them contain corn in one form or another.
Unfortunately, for farmers this cornucopia of corn became a problem (Not to mention the deleterious effect it's had on the average American's health). The farmers found, as overproduction caused corn prices to drop, that the only way they could possibly make money was to constantly plant more corn in a doomed effort to stay ahead of the downward price spiral.
Then along came rising gas prices and energy dependence and then global warming too and things started to look up for corn farmers and their communities because, wow, now they could make ethanol, save the world and turn a tidy profit in the process. At least that's what the farm lobby told Congress. And Congress agreed passing legislation in 2000 requiring the country to produce 7.5 billion gallons of biofuels by 2012. This year, the United States will produce around 6.5 billion gallons of ethanol (and a much smaller amount of biodiesel) and President Bush has called for annual production of 35 billion gallons by 2017. The growth in ethanol production has pushed corn prices up to their highest level in years.
The problem is that making corn from ethanol is comparatively inefficient and environmentally unsound.
"We can create ethanol in an incredibly dumb way," says Nathanael Greene, a senior researcher with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "But there are many pathways that get us a future full of wildlife, soil carbon, and across-the-board benefits." The key, Greene and others say, is to figure out how to make fuel from plant material other than food: cornstalks, prairie grasses, fast-growing trees, or even algae. That approach, combined with more efficient vehicles and communities, says Greene, "could eliminate our demand for gasoline by 2050."
There are a number of specific areas of concern with corn as a biofuel including:
1) Its relatively low energy output per unit of energy input.
The relative suitability of a crop for ethanol production can be determined by calculating it's net energy balance (NEB) defined as "the energy content of the biofuel divided by the total fossil energy used throughout the full life cycle of the production of the feedstock [corn, soybeans, sugar cane, etc.], its conversion to biofuel and transport" (see Water Implications of Biofuels Production in the United States).
In other words, what's the ratio of fossil fuel energy input to biofuel energy output?
The NEB for corn is 1:1.3 at best (Some experts think it's actually negative: 1:<1). That is, for every gallon of fossil fuel input one gets a biofuel output of no more than 1.3 gallons. Compare that with soy whose NEB is 1:1.8-2.0 or switchgrass, a cellulosic feedstock, whose NEB is anywhere from 1:4 to 1:15. Brazil's very successful sugar cane ethanol has a NEB of 1:8.
Among the various feedstocks then, corn has the lowest NEB producing no more than 1.3 units of biofuel energy for every 1 unit of fossil fuel input.
(For more information check out this interactive module from National Geographic comparing the energy from various biofuel crops. Be sure to click at the bottom of the screen to hear the discussion of the pros and cons of each feedstock.)
2) The high level of fertilizers and pesticides required to grow corn and the consequent high levels of water pollution that result.
According to a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS): "Groundwater quality is directly impacted by the high levels of nitrate and nitrite--the products of nitrogen fertilizers--that leach into the groundwater from corn fields," The report goes on to point out that:
Per unit of energy gained, corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel have dramatically different impacts on water quality (Hill et al., 2006). When fertilizer and pesticide application rates (Figure 3-1) are scaled relative to the NEB values of these two biofuels, they are seen to differ dramatically (Figure 3-5). Per unit of energy gained, biodiesel requires just 2 percent of the N[itrogen] and 8 percent of the P[hosphorus] needed for corn ethanol. Pesticide use per NEB differs similarly. Low input high-diversity prairie biomass and other native species would also compare favorably relative to corn using this metric. [my emphasis]
The health consequences of excessive levels of nitrate+nitrite in drinking water are severe. The NAS report cited above points out that the US EPA recommends treatment of drinking water with nitrate+nitrite levels over 10 milligrams per liter in order to avoid, among other negative health effects, Blue Baby Syndrome, a malady in infants in which ingested nitrite binds with hemoglobin to impede the transport of oxygen.
In areas of intensive agriculture in the US levels of nitrate+nitrite of over 4 milligrams per liter are already common and recent increases in the acreage devoted to corn cultivation have already lead to increased quantities of Nitrogen and Phosphorus in surface and groundwaters. Additional increases in the area devoted to corn cultivation can only exacerbate the problem.
Besides pollution of ground and surface water nitrogen fertilizer runoff causes erosion and can severely damage coastal waters. A 10,000 square kilometer dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the acknowledged result of nitrogen runoff into the Mississippi River system. When dead zones form most fish and other marine species die off from hypoxia (lack of oxygen).
The NAS report concludes:
All else being equal, the conversion of other crops or non-crop plants to corn will likely lead to much higher application rates of nitrogen (Figure 3-1). Given the correlation of nitrogen application rates to stream concentrations of total nitrogen, and of the latter to the increase in hypoxia in the nation's waterbodies, the potential for additional corn-based ethanol production to increase the extent of these hypoxic regions is considerable.
3) Overtaxing water systems. This is a concern regardless of the feedstock being cultivated.
Whether conversion of existing crops to biofuel production increases water consumption depends on the crops involved and the area of the country where they are grown. The expansion of any feedstock cultivation into drier areas in the West where there previously has been no irrigation obviously has the potential to strain existing water systems.
Expansion in areas where agriculture is already widespread will further tax already degraded water systems. Due to excessive groundwater pumping, the water table in the Ogallala aquifer has already dropped by over 100 feet. In other areas such as the Klamath River Basin in Oregon and California intense conflict already exists as farmers square off with environmentalists over water allocations.
According to a recent report from the International Water Management Institute (IWMA), water is a even bigger limiting factor in biofuel production in many other countries. China plans to increase ethanol production, using corn, from 3.6 billion liters to 17.7 billion liters by 2030. Given that 75% of Chinese grain crops are irrigated and that it's water resources are already overtaxed it is unlikely that China can meet this target without reducing grain production for food, the demand for which continues to grow. In that case China will be forced to import more grain which is in direct opposition to its goal of reducing its import dependency. Moreover, increased production of corn ethanol, with its relatively insignificant advantage over fossil fuels will do little to reduce China's pollution problems or halt global warming. China is not alone in this dilemma. India faces similar problems with its goal of producing more ethanol from sugar cane, which, in India, also requires irrigation.
Whether biofuels, or agrofuels as some prefer to call them, will become a permanent source of world energy production or are merely a stopgap measure soon to be replaced by plug-in cars and hydrogen fuel cells, is, I think, yet to be seen. What I hope is clear is that whatever one's opinion of biofuels, making ethanol from corn is by far our worst option.
Production of corn ethanol does next to nothing to fight global warming, but it will increases surface and ground water pollution, coastal dead zones and soil erosion in addition to further straining the world's already overburdened supplies of freshwater. By committing vast resources to corn ethanol we add one more link to a chain of bad decisions stretching bad to Fritz Haber. We would be far wiser to cleave that chain once and for all.